Sophie Cunningham attempts to make a basket

Sophie Cunningham attempts a layup during Missouri’s game against Florida on Feb. 5 at Mizzou Arena. The Tigers won the game 66-64.

There’s no denying that the Missouri women’s basketball team’s first-round exit from the 2018 NCAA Tournament was an acute disappointment for a program that looked poised to make a deep run in March.

But all that is over now. The Tigers are focused on this season — this team — and are excited to see how far they can go in Sophie Cunningham’s final season in a Missouri uniform.

That was the message that head coach Robin Pingeton, junior guard Amber Smith and Cunningham delivered to national and league media at the Southeastern Conference Media Day on Thursday in Birmingham, Alabama.

Cunningham, who was named to the preseason All-SEC team earlier in the week, seemed to bask in the bright lights of the media day. She smiled even as she was asked whether she’s developed a reputation as a marked player in the league.

“When I’m on the court, I’m just such a competitive person, and I’m going to do anything my team needs me to do to win,” Cunningham said in a televised interview. “I’m blue-collared, I’m hard-working, and I just don’t ever quit, and I think sometimes people don’t like that.”

Cunningham said she won’t change her play style for anyone, even if it means she’ll draw boos from fans in opposing gymnasiums across the league.

{p dir=”ltr”}”I like to have a lot of fun,” Cunningham said. “I put in a lot of hard work in the offseason and in practice, so I feel like I deserve to have fun and smile out there and enjoy the game.”

Cunningham and Smith combined to average 27.8 points per game last season, and both players will be asked to maintain or improve their offensive output this year. Smith, who averaged 9.3 points per game a season ago, will certainly be leaned on more heavily.

The biggest changes from last season will come from radical changes in personnel. Pingeton said those changes will give Missouri more opportunities to spread out its offense.

“I think we’re more nonexistent (inside the paint) than thin, so it’s going to look a lot different,” Pingeton said in a television interview. “The reads are still the same, the screening action is the same, (but) the spacing is a little bit different. But (from) what I’ve seen so far, I think our girls have really embraced it and I think it does make it a little tougher to guard us.”

But while Cunningham and Smith will be the focal points, Pingeton said Missouri will also have to get production from its newcomers to compete in a loaded SEC. She highlighted three freshmen — forward Grace Berg and guards Akiva Levy and Haley Troup — as players she expects to be key contributors.

Pingeton singled Berg out specifically for her high basketball IQ and her offensive skills.

“What I like the most about (Berg) is she’s got the same kind of versatility as Sophie (Cunningham) and Amber (Smith). She can really play both inside and she’s pretty crafty around the basket.”

Pingeton said she expects Berg and Levy to play a lot of minutes for her team, and mentioned Levy’s impressive distinction of winning three state championships when she was a high school player in Tennessee.

“She’s a pretty dynamic young lady and I think she’s going to catch a lot of people’s attention,” Pingeton said. “She really does a great job of pushing the pace for us, and all she’s done her whole career is win.”

Troup, a redshirt freshman transfer via rival South Carolina, is eligible to play after sitting out the 2017-18 season due to NCAA transfer rules.She will likely play less than her two newcomer counterparts.

Pingeton made sure not to downplay Troup’s role as a sharpshooter for the offense, however.

“She can shoot it from long range and can put a lot of points on the board in a hurry,” Pingeton said.

No matter what happens, Pingeton said she feels her squad has the right mix of returning stars and talented newcomers to be successful.

“I think we’re going to get a lot of help from our newcomers, but our returning kids understand what it’s all about and how tough this league is going to be,” Pingeton said. “I know we’re all looking forward to it.”

  • Women's cross country and women's basketball beat writer from 2018-19. Now working as assistant sports editor.

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